Book Review: The Plundered Planet

Paul Collier's The Plundered Planet

Paul Collier's The Plundered Planet

Renowned economist at Oxford University Paul Collier follows up his wide success The Bottom Billion by setting out to reconcile the differences between economists and environmentalists in The Plundered Planet. It’s enviably explained (albeit in la lengua de economica) and worth the time for anyone seeking to discover the reality behind the sensational slogans of sustainability and blind consumption.

He starts the book by presenting two ethical systems: utilitarianism, the cornerstone of economics, which Collier admits reduces people to benevolent ants; and propinquity, the ethical enemy to utilitarianism that states we tend to care more about people who are closer to us. Both systems are used to analyze natural resources.

Propinquity suggests we have ownership over the resources within our nation-state’s borders, which are best handled by governments. Conversely, according to utilitarians, since natural assets are not a product of man, everyone should benefit from them.

Collier recognizes two distinct forms of plunder from these perspectives: “In one, natural assets that should belong to all the citizens of a nation are expropriated by the few for their private benefit. In the other, natural assests that should belong to all generations are expropriated by those citizens currently alive for their own benefit.”

The author likes to be up front at times, distilling jargon into laconic text. Humans are not the curators of nature, he claims. Nature does no one any good if it is kept preserved like a piece of fine art in a museum; none of that growth potential can be unlocked and poor countries will miss a large opportunity. We are, according to Collier, the custodians of nature, however. We must look after it and we have an ethical obligation to replace non-renewable assets with those of equal or greater value. Renewable resources should be sustained.

“We are not here to serve nature; nature is here to serve us,” he says. Agree with it or not, one must admit it is bold. It is also the underpinning argument for the rest of the book.

Being the Director of the Centre for the Study of African Economies at Oxford, Collier has a confirmed penchant for bringing up African nations as examples. But a good deal of Asia is also covered in his works.

Though nations well-endowed by a fluke of nature may appear to be set on a road towards prosperity, Dutch disease (or the export curse) stops that right in its tracks — except for a unique few, such as Malaysia and Norway.

How has Malaysia been able to dodge the disease? Benevolent governance seems to be the answer — what Collier calls “sincere national purpose.”

“The public officials who ran the Malaysian national oil company [Petronas], virtually all from the Bumiputra [majority indigenous Malays who are poorer than the Chinese minority], realized that it could enable them to catch up.”

Rents gained from oil largely went into domestic investment, unlike in Africa where much of it flees the continent. “Malaysia used its earnings from resource exports to diversify its economy and now has a wide range of nonresource exports. It attracts more foreign investment per capita than any other developing country.”

The book takes an indirect stab at China and other polluters that claim that they, in turn, have a right to pollute because they are following a paradigm previously appropriated by the West. To Collier, “the era of cheap natural abundance is over.” He explains this analogously through fishing: Before technology made fish easily accessible, catches were a reward for that labor. Now fisherman can easily scoop up large swathes of fish thanks to advancements made in fishing equipment; rapid depletion has made fish more valuable. And so has the liability of carbon in our atmosphere became a negative asset — a debt — that must be valued accordingly.

Citizens can move to change government addictions. Indeed, they are our addictions. After slaying what Collier terms the three “giants of romanticism” (idealizing peasant lifestyles; demonizing GM crops; ending ethanol subsidies), citizens can effectively grow in harmony with the natural world.

For more information on the charter borne out of these ideas visit http://www.naturalresourcecharter.org/

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